Russia’s mistakes in Ukraine, twenty years after the USA’s mistakes in Iraq

“Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine represents a turning point in history. This war is not just about Europe. It is an attack on the international order with far-reaching consequences in terms of security”.

These words were pronounced in recent days by the EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, on the occasion of the second Baghdad conference for Cooperation and Partnership. I don’t know if Borrell’s ears were ringed as he made these statements. It is certainly paradoxical that during an international event on Iraq the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces was denounced, failing to mention what happened twenty years earlier.

It was March 2003 when the US military began the invasion of what is ancient Mesopotamia. A few days earlier I was visiting Baghdad with a large delegation of MEPs. I still vividly remember the images of the long lines of desperate people queuing in front of the counters of the United Nations humanitarian agencies which distributed the weekly rations of flour, sugar, rice and a few other basic foodstuffs. The international sanctions in force since the first Gulf War had brought Iraq to its knees by reducing its population to extremes. Saddam Hussein’s insane and bloody regime was on the ropes, now in a state of doing no harm. Yet Washington found the pretext to unleash a war of which we are still paying the consequences in the light of the tremendous process of destabilization caused in the Middle East region and beyond. The words of regret by then Secretary of State Colin Powell for that military intervention shortly before his death in October 2021 were of little use.

No one will ever be able to restore the lives of those hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqi civilians who were bombed or nearly 5,000 American soldiers sent to their deaths to prevent the development of weapons of mass destruction programs that turned out to be non-existent.

In the meantime, the news is recent that a large bipartisan group of British politicians has appealed to the government in London to set up a special international tribunal to deal with the crime of aggression committed by the Russian Federation against Ukraine. It is worth pointing out that the 2003 UK backed the US in its invasion of Iraq. Respect for international law and the promotion of multilateralism are fundamental principles enshrined in the Treaty of the European Union of 2009. They constitute the guiding star of European external action. For some years, however, English-speaking circles have been tending to replace the concept of international law with that of rules-based order as if the two things were equivalent. It is by no means clear, however, what rules this order is supposed to be based on.

Three of the four main players on the world geopolitical scene (USA, Russia and China) show a disturbing inclination towards unilateralism, not caring about it or reinterpreting the norms of international law according to convenience. Even the EU, the fourth global superpower, sometimes seems to be a victim of this syndrome. Yet it is in everyone’s interest and essential for peace to promote and respect basic principles for coexistence among states under the aegis of international bodies. It is good, then, that the Russian Federation be held accountable and judged for the heinous crimes committed in Ukraine. It would be just as appropriate, however, for ideas to be clarified within the Atlantic alliance and for the EU to have the courage to raise, with the US, the lacerating contradictions that undermine the credibility of the West on the world scene. European strategic autonomy has been discussed in Brussels for some time. We begin by solving the most basic questions.

Russia’s mistakes in Ukraine, twenty years after the USA’s mistakes in Iraq